August 7, 2013

100 Best Novels: To the Lighthouse


Fleeting moments, overlapping circumstances, and dreams that will never be. Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse seamlessly invites its readers into a stream of consciousness that artfully exposes the inner worlds of the Ramsay household and makes you realize that your own experiences are just one set of many.

It's too easy to say that I enjoyed this book. I did, but that doesn't seem like enough. It moved me, and it drew me in in a way that I did not expect. After the confusion of James Joyce's narrative approach, I wasn't sure that another stream of consciousness novel would be the right choice for me, but somehow Virginia Woolf perfectly constructed a story of intertwining lives and shared their perspectives in a way that wasn't just accessible, but natural. 

This novel is about so many things. In one sense, it's about the quixotic nature of dreams and hopes and how many of the characters will never achieve what they most want. Even when a dream is realized, time has passed, and the way we perceive and interact with the world has changed. A childhood wish to go an an excursion to the lighthouse nearby is viewed with different eyes years later. Nothing is permanent and ever-enduring, not even our dreams. While there's something distinctly sad about that realization, I think Woolf also makes the point that it is inevitable and perhaps simply part of the essence of things. Maybe no one perspective in time is right. Maybe it's the plurality and plasticity of our views that gives objects, dreams, and hopes meaning. 

My favorite passage described the decay that falls upon the Ramsay house in between their summer together and their reunion ten years later. In that time, there are family tragedies and unexpected turns, and their summer home by the lighthouse is neglected. Woolf does a marvelous job describing how the house peels and sinks over time, paralleling the hurt and losses that the Ramsays experience in their lives. When the hired help begin the arduous task of repairing the house and making it presentable for the Ramsays' return, they hum and haw about how the house couldn't have been expected to stay the same. Though they fix it up nicely, it can't be the same as before. There is no going back.

Overall, this novel made me reflect on the plurality of experience and of how we must keep carrying ourselves forward. Like the laps of an ocean wave, we must keep moving, and we cannot recreate the past. Time washes pieces of our life away, and while there might be a yearning for what has been lost, we will drift along anyhow. We must keep moving. 


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100 Best Novels

1. "Ulysses," James Joyce
2. "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald
4. "Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov
5. "Brave New World," Aldous Huxley
6. "The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner
7. "Catch-22," Joseph Heller
8. "Darkness at Noon," Arthur Koestler
9. "Sons and Lovers," D. H. Lawrence
10. "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck
11. "Under the Volcano," Malcolm Lowry
12. "The Way of All Flesh," Samuel Butler
13. "1984," George Orwell
14. "I, Claudius," Robert Graves
15. "To the Lighthouse," Virginia Woolf
16. "An American Tragedy," Theodore Dreiser
17. "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," Carson McCullers
18. "Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut
19. "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison
20. "Native Son," Richard Wright
21. "Henderson the Rain King," Saul Bellow
22. "Appointment in Samarra," John O' Hara
23. "U.S.A." (trilogy), John Dos Passos
24. "Winesburg, Ohio," Sherwood Anderson
25. "A Passage to India," E. M. Forster
26. "The Wings of the Dove," Henry James
27. "The Ambassadors," Henry James
29. "The Studs Lonigan Trilogy," James T. Farrell
30. "The Good Soldier," Ford Madox Ford
31. "Animal Farm," George Orwell
32. "The Golden Bowl," Henry James
33. "Sister Carrie," Theodore Dreiser
34. "A Handful of Dust," Evelyn Waugh
35. "As I Lay Dying," William Faulkner
36. "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren
37. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," Thornton Wilder
38. "Howards End," E. M. Forster
39. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," James Baldwin
40. "The Heart of the Matter," Graham Greene
41. "Lord of the Flies," William Golding
42. "Deliverance," James Dickey
43. "A Dance to the Music of Time" (series), Anthony Powell
44. "Point Counter Point," Aldous Huxley
46. "The Secret Agent," Joseph Conrad
47. "Nostromo," Joseph Conrad
48. "The Rainbow," D. H. Lawrence
49. "Women in Love," D. H. Lawrence
50. "Tropic of Cancer," Henry Miller
51. "The Naked and the Dead," Norman Mailer
52. "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth
53. "Pale Fire," Vladimir Nabokov
54. "Light in August," William Faulkner
55. "On the Road," Jack Kerouac
56. "The Maltese Falcon," Dashiell Hammett
57. "Parade's End," Ford Madox Ford
58. "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton
59. "Zuleika Dobson," Max Beerbohm
60. "The Moviegoer," Walker Percy
61. "Death Comes to the Archbishop," Willa Cather
62. "From Here to Eternity," James Jones
63. "The Wapshot Chronicles," John Cheever
64. "The Catcher in the Rye," J. D. Salinger
65. "A Clockwork Orange," Anthony Burgess
66. "Of Human Bondage," W. Somerset Maugham
67. "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad
68. "Main Street," Sinclair Lewis
69. "The House of Mirth," Edith Wharton
70. "The Alexandria Quartet," Lawrence Durrell
71. "A High Wind in Jamaica," Richard Hughes
72. "A House for Ms. Biswas," V. S. Naipaul
73. "The Day of the Locust," Nathaniel West
75. "Scoop," Evelyn Waugh
76. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," Muriel Spark
77. "Finnegans Wake," James Joyce
78. "Kim," Rudyard Kipling
79. "A Room With a View," E. M. Forster
80. "Brideshead Revisited," Evelyn Waugh
81. "The Adventures of Augie March," Saul Bellow
82. "Angle of Repose," Wallace Stegner
83. "A Bend in the River," V. S. Naipaul
84. "The Death of the Heart," Elizabeth Bowen
85. "Lord Jim," Joseph Conrad
86. "Ragtime," E. L. Doctorow
87. "The Old Wives' Tale," Arnold Bennett
88. "The Call of the Wild," Jack London
89. "Loving," Henry Green
90. "Midnight's Children," Salman Rushdie
91. "Tobacco Road," Erskine Caldwell
92. "Ironweed," William Kennedy
93. "The Magus," John Fowles
94. "Wide Sargasso Sea," Jean Rhys
95. "Under the Net," Iris Murdoch
96. "Sophie's Choice," William Styron
97. "The Sheltering Sky," Paul Bowles
98. "The Postman Always Rings Twice," James M. Cain
99. "The Ginger Man," J. P. Donleavy
100. "The Magnificent Ambersons," Booth Tarkington